Busted: Merrill Brown

An interview with the media visionary behind "Faces of Faith"

As both the founder of an online religion blog and a contributor to BustedHalo and other web-based religious news sites like Beliefnet, The Revealer and KillingtheBuddha there’s one thing I’ve observed: the simplest changes in terms of design or function can often take eons to implement. In other words, like Rome, a religion website isn’t built in a day.

Or so I thought, until last week when I discovered Faces of Faith in America, a new religion news site that suddenly appeared on the web and that’s as cool and contemporary as any faith url out there. The sleek look and all the fun interactive elements aside, the site seemingly burst into existence with more than 80 top-notch video and print religion stories by journalists I’d never heard of. How was this possible?

As I explored “Faces of Faith,” I was relieved to learn that the site was the effort of 44 journalism grad students from five major universities— Columbia, Berkeley, USC Annenberg, Northwestern, and Harvard—guided by a support team of faculty and professional journalists.

“Faces of Faith” is part of a larger project called News21, which is headed by media veteran Merrill Brown. A media consultant with his own firm, Brown was the first editor-in-chief of MSNBC.com and was one of the founders of CourtTV. A journalist by trade—he was a financial correspondent for the Washington Post in the early ‘80s—he went on to help steer several magazines, including Time and Money. Recently I spoke with Brown about “Faces of Faith,” as well as the state of the internet and online news, the blogosphere’s at-times questionable reputation, and journalism’s frequent failure to grasp religion.

BustedHalo.com: Tell us about News21.

Merrill Brown: Earlier in the decade, some 15 to 20 journalism school deans began meeting to discuss the state of journalism with the Carnegie Corporation. Eventually the Knight Foundation became involved as well. The list of participants narrowed down, as groups like that tend to do, to five schools, and in the summer of 2005, the two foundations developed a plan to create an initiative on journalism education with several objectives. One goal was to reinvigorate the field. Another was to give the profession a larger voice in the ongoing debates about where news and journalism is heading. And a third was to give journalism graduate students an opportunity to develop their skills and demonstrate their capabilities.

The program was launched as a three-part initiative in early 2006. The first component is a curriculum initiative run largely by Nick Lemann, the journalism dean at Columbia, and the second is a task force led by Alex Jones, who heads the Shorenstein policy center at Harvard’s Kennedy School. And the third component is News21, the graduate student fellowship program that I run. We’ve just completed our second year of the fellowship program, and it’s very exciting, and I think we’ve made a lot of progress on the key goals of the initiative.

“For people to trash the internet as a medium in a blanket way is ridiculous and extraordinary. It would be like someone trashing television as a medium. It’s what people do with the internet that’s important.”

BH: News21 showcases graduate students’ reporting through traditional and new media. You’ve been involved in all aspects of media, and have noted that the Internet is the “best delivery platform for news that’s ever been developed.” At the risk of asking you to state the obvious, how so?

MB: The internet offers every capability imaginable. It can provide people material to read, video to watch, and audio to listen to. There are software applications that enable people to access data related to stories they want to learn more about. It provides ubiquitous distribution; in other words, there’s no bottleneck along the way for someone wanting to produce a TV show, or distribute a magazine, or publish an article. The day you put up an internet site, as you’ve done, anybody in the world can access it. So, from the ability to give people a lot of different media forms, and the ability to make content instantly available to anyone, anywhere, there’s no other platform like it.

BH: Yet the internet has had its critics. Initially, there was a lot of suspicion or distrust of it in the traditional print world. Has that totally changed, or are there still doubts lingering out there?

MB: Well, there’s certainly suspicion directed at some people on the web who practice what they consider to be journalism. You’re right, though, in observing that originally there was suspicion of the internet as a medium, which is preposterous. I’ve been working with it since the mid-‘90s, and to have people in a blanket way trash the internet as a medium is ridiculous and extraordinary. It would be like someone trashing television as a medium. It’s what people do with the internet that’s important.

But I don’t think there’s anybody in journalism who still talks that way about this thing called “the internet.” That kind of backward thinking has now been replaced by the trashing of this thing called “the blogosphere.” There are still critics who are complaining about people who are out there, in their homes, typing away on their laptops in their pajamas, and how you just can’t trust this new tool.

BH: Ah, ‘tis fun to shoot the messenger…

MB: Right, and that ridiculous discussion is still going on—just visit the various journalism blogs and you’ll see. It even surfaced recently in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, where a journalism professor trashed the blogosphere as if it’s a thing that one could make a judgment about. It’s like a newsstand—there are good magazines, there are bad magazines. On the blogosphere, there is some garbage, but there are also some extraordinarily terrific things. Unfortunately, there will always be people who are critical of new things, some of which intimidates them and some of which makes them angry. But it’s interesting that the blogosphere has become the whipping boy now that people realize it’s absurd to trash the internet.